Medical parole is necessary to help protect Oklahoma prisons and hospitals from COVID-19 

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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Overcrowded state prisons face some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation. A single state prison in rural Arkansas is the site of more than 20 percent of all of the cases in the state. Similar scenarios are occurring throughout the country with thousands of inmates, corrections staff, and law enforcement now infected. Hospitals in some states are already running out of ventilators because of prison outbreaks.

Oklahoma’s prisons are 107 percent overcapacity. This overcrowding combined with a prison system filled with immune compromised and aging inmates only heightens the risk from COVID-19. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections could significantly reduce the risk our hospitals face by creating a list of non-violent, medically vulnerable inmates who can be considered for medical parole by the state’s Pardon and Parole Board.

Oklahoma’s inmates are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19

Thousands of incarcerated Oklahomans are at increased risk from COVID-19. Nationally about half of the people incarcerated in state prisons suffer from at least one chronic condition; 10% report heart conditions, and 15% report asthma. These percentages are far greater than those for the population at large, even when comparing similar age groups. Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis and failed public health policies have produced particularly bad outcomes. More than 12 percent of the people in Oklahoma’s state prisons need treatment for hepatitis C alone, one of the deadliest diseases in the nation. This is significantly higher than the 2 percent hepatitis infection rate outside prisons in Oklahoma. 

COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates in the U.S. also show profound racial disparities due to higher rates of pre-existing conditions and less access to health care. More than 80 percent of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in Georgia have been African Americans, and in Louisiana, more than 70 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19 are Black. In New Mexico, American Indians make up less than 10 percent of the population, but over a third of COVID-19 cases. These racial inequities intensify the virus threat to Oklahoma prisons. Oklahoma has the highest Black incarceration rate in the nation with 1 in 15 adult Black men incarcerated. Disproportionate incarceration rates among Native and Latinx communities should also be cause for concern especially during a viral outbreak.

Oklahoma’s hospitals could easily be overwhelmed by a prison outbreak

Depending on rural hospitals to care for large numbers of high risk inmates confined in cramped prison conditions could be catastrophic for Oklahoma. Rural Oklahoma hospitals have been struggling for decades, and Oklahoma’s failure to expand Medicaid has made the state’s rural health care crisis worse. Fewer treatment providers, hospital resources and staff means that some infected inmates or prison staff could have to travel more than 100 miles in Oklahoma just to find adequate medical care.

As a general rule, prisons lack accessibility because they are located in areas far from population centers. For example, the Jim Hamilton Correctional Center, located in Hodgen, Oklahoma, is about an hour away from the nearest hospital with adequate resources for COVID-19 treatment. The prison is more than 101 percent over the facility’s rated capacity, and these overcrowded conditions are made more dangerous by the fact that a trip to the nearest hospital could take more than two hours. Infected staff or inmates who can’t access needed ICU space or ventilators are much more likely to die from the symptoms of COVID-19. Numerous Oklahoma prisons in rural areas have thousands of inmates facing similar health care and hospitalization challenges. Prison outbreaks threaten to strain the state’s hospital beds and resources just as the state loosens “safer at home” restrictions. 

Medical parole could meet the urgent need for action demanded by this crisis

The risk of a large scale COVID-19 outbreak in Oklahoma prisons demands urgent action. Oklahoma’s medical parole process can be enacted quickly and safely. By law, the Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections has the authority to create a list of inmates who have increased medical risk and can be considered for parole. In light of the threat posed by this pandemic, such a list could include thousands of inmates. If the Parole Board begins holding hearings more frequently to manage expedited releases and medical paroles, such releases could be managed responsibly over the coming weeks and months. Many other states have dramatically increased their use of compassionate release since the start of this crisis, and federal courts are already forcing some prisons to take action. 

In March, a group of organizations from across the political spectrum made recommendations to reduce the virus’ impact in Oklahoma prisons, including use of medical parole. Others are continuing the work to move this issue forward, including an online petition that urges policymakers to consider expedited release for:

  • Pregnant women with non-violent charges

  • Those with non-violent charges who are older than 60 

  • Those with severe medical conditions that compromise their immune systems who have non-violent charges

  • Those eligible for release in the next 3-6 months who have non-violent charges

  • Those scheduled to make court appearances in other states or being transferred to ICE

Spread of the virus within Oklahoma’s incarceration system will remain an ongoing threat to vulnerable inmates, corrections staff and rural hospitals. Without decisive action from state leaders to reduce its transmission, the virus has very real potential to make both prisons and our communities less safe in the long run. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Damion joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in July of 2018 as the criminal justice policy analyst. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

5 thoughts on “Medical parole is necessary to help protect Oklahoma prisons and hospitals from COVID-19 

  1. Once again those with a violent crime who have already served nearly double time and have proved themselves are left out of the conversation.

  2. Where are these released people going to go? Will they have any financial or medical support? How many will join the ranks of the homeless or go to live with families with little or no income and/or no health insurance, thanks to our state’s determination to avoid the expansion of Medicaid?

  3. Great article, but when did our governor and house leaders become God, what gives them the right to choose who stays or who goes violent crime or not especially when the majority of people would gladly do house arrest to stay alive! The majority of young people have taken plea deals to avoid the threats and dirty cops and da’s and have some type of certainty they will get out, that doesnt make them guilty! But to say you are gonna die from a virus now after all the plea deals and bargains you are gonna die anyway! Because we dont care you have an autoimmune disease or you had cancer and have no immune system left, or have a disease that ruins their immunity your gonna die! Well thats, that, is exactly what they are doing washing their hands of it!
    Thank you,

  4. Again great article but I think enough people have turned a blind eye to this report and the truth of what they are doing! There are so many ways to save people than just pick a chosen few, if control is the issue, put them on a monitor if they can pay save the state millions while you save lives! But people accused of violent offenses dont deserve to die , the state government isnt God!

  5. My wife is a non violent offender in a prison in Oklahoma City. She is 48 years old and has asthma. I haven’t seen my wife in over a year. I’m in California, I bought a plane ticket and couldn’t visit at the prison because of the virus. My wife is serving time on felon in possession of a firearm she DIDN’T DO. Her ex husband pulled HIS firearm on her and threatened to kill her with it. She was scared and SHE CALLED THE SHERIFF. When the Sheriff arrived he arrested her and stated,” Your an ex felon and can’t be around firearms.” But Jay, Oklahoma Delaware County is corrupt they raped and murdered female inmates and not one sheriff or jailer was held accountable. The Oklahoma Bureu of Investigation did NOTHING. My wife is NOT guilty on possession of a firearm! How many ex felons in possession of a firearm call the police on themselves? NONE! The only charge my wife is actually guilty on is possession of $20 in meth that occurred 3-4 years ago. Which they want her to do 5 years felony probation/parole on. When current law it’s only a one year misdemeanor charge at maximum. Oklahoma is one of the most corrupt states I’ve ever seen and that’s saying a lot since I’m in California. When Sheriffs get away with rape and murdering female inmates among others and my wife is incarcerated on a gun she NEVER HAD its pretty bad. The ONLY charge my wife is guilty of is being a recovering addict.

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